Revolutionary Writer

“My heart and myself are three thousand miles apart; and I had rather see my horse, Button, eating the grass of Bordentown than see all the show and pomp of Europe.”

SUCH WERE Thomas Paine’s feelings when he wrote these words while living in France after the American Revolution. He had purchased a house in Bordentown, New Jersey at the corner of Farnsworth Avenue and Church Streets in 1783 and lived there off and on until his death in 1809. It was the only property he would ever own.

Born in England, Paine emigrated to Philadelphia at the urging of none other than Benjamin Franklin who wrote for him a letter of recommendation. Franklin’s suggestion turned out to be a good one, for shortly after his arrival in America, Paine authored one of the most incendiary works ever written: Common Sense. A pamphlet of just forty-seven pages and costing two shillings, it began to be sold on the streets of Philadelphia in January of 1776. Within three months 120,000 copies had been purchased and shared, sending an electric shock throughout the colonies. It bolstered the cause of the revolution, reinforcing the belief that freedom was the noblest of all things to fight for. John Adams declared, “Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.”

Paine continued to write more inspirational works such as the Crisis Papers from which Washington read aloud to his troops: “These are the times that try men’s souls…”

Washington reading Thomas Paine to his troops

Washington reading Thomas Paine to his troops

Paine’s career continued not only as an author but as a military aide, statesman–negotiating France’s involvement with America; helping to organize the Bank of North America, and political activist in general. When the American Revolution was over, he moved to France and penned Rights of Man, another political tract encouraging the French in their own revolt. Paine was even an inventor, receiving a British patent for an iron bridge design, developed a smokeless candle, and worked with John Fitch in developing steam engines. Because of his intensely radical nature, which even deepened over time, Paine was not on everybody’s friendship list. While in France, he even attacked President George Washington as an incompetent commander and wrote to him personally: “the world will be puzzled to decide whether you are an apostate or an impostor; whether you have abandoned good principles or whether you ever had any.” He returned to America to no great welcome and finally passed away in 1809. Only six mourners attended his funeral. His obituary read simply: “He lived long, did some good and much harm.” His house in Bordentown is now a dentist’s office.

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The Colonel’s indiscretion

Here’s an excerpt from my book in progress “The Illustrated River” about the Hessian Colonel von Donop

DURING the American Revolution, the British made extensive use of mercenaries from Germany whom most know as “Hessians”. This is a convenient but inaccurate term. Hesse-Kassel is merely one of the regions of Germany that contributed these professional soldiers. They were employed as units, with most of their money going to the prince of their respective states. The British found it easier and cheaper to borrow money to pay for hired guns than to recruit their own.

About 30,000 Germans were deployed in the colonies, many of them dispersed throughout  Central and South Jersey after they had chased the Continental Army down through the state from New England and New York. One of their commanders was the Colonel Count Carl Emil Ulrich von Donop, the son of a noble family of Hesse-Kassel. This was the same Colonel who met his end at the Battle of Red Bank near Woodbury, NJ in 1777 when 2,000 of his troops were soundly defeated by a defending  colonial force of 400.

A von donop Jäger

A von donop Jäger

I had a chance to speak with a re-enactor at a Soldier’s Weekend that took place at Fort Mott a couple of years ago.  When I mentioned the Red Bank offensive, he sheepishly admitted, “Yeah, we got our butts kicked there”, as if he had actually taken part. He was dressed in the uniform of a Jäger, who were professional hunters in their homeland. Some of you will no doubt associate this with the popular cough-syrup-like swill served at bars known as Jäger Meister. It means something like “Hunt Master”.

A year previously, Col. von Donop was in command of garrisons at Trenton, Burlington and Bordentown. Since Washington had been chased across the Delaware to lick his wounds, the British, along with their German forces decided to suspend operations and dig in for the winter. However, in response to skirmishes initiated by the colonials, von Donop moved his entire forces south to Mount Holly to keep the rebels at bay. He was warned however to stay on alert, in case he should be needed to reinforce Trenton where rumors were being circulated of an impending attack. The colonel was unconcerned. While in Mount Holly, he had made the acquaintance of the beautiful young widow of a recently deceased doctor. He spent the night of December 23 at her house, then Christmas Eve and Christmas Day as well.

And while von Donop was thoroughly enjoying the holiday season away from his soldierly duties, the Continental Army crossed the Delaware during a wicked nor’easter, marched nine miles South to Trenton, and captured the town and 900 of his troops.

There is much speculation that the British may have lost Trenton because of Von Donop’s indiscretions. It is also thought that the young widow may have been a clandestine colonial agent. And even further speculation brings up the suspicion that the lady in question may have been someone General Washington himself was well acquainted with—the young widow Betsy Ross.